CBR III Week 10: A Certain Justice by PD James

One thing that happened this week was that I managed to slice open my thumb on my new chef's knife that Chandler gave me for my birthday (and that I refused to use for .58 years so it would always be beautiful and new) thereby christening it with my blood. It is ruined now–marred forever–so I will continue to use it to chop vegetables and do other awful, mundane things with its fancy sharpness.

One thing that did not happen this week was me writing 6 reviews. I don't have an excuse, but I do have a fourth review.

A certain justice

A Certain Justice is a murder mystery featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh, of New Scotland Yard, who has been around for longer than most of the people I know, and maybe that's why he's so competent. This time around, an extremely unpleasant piece of work named Venetia Aldridge (a defense attorney by trade) (and an apparent victim of Classy Naming) has been found dead in her office in Pawlet Court. First of all, do you know about the Courts? It is all very confusing to me, but a defense attorney is still a defense attorney (probably).

Anywhizbang, the murder looks like an inside-the-office job, but initially the strongest suspect is a young man whom Venetia (I KNOW that this isn't a made-up name, but every time I hear it I picture a gondola) defended. Garry Ashe had been accused of killing his aunt, with whom he had been having a creepy incestuous relationship. All incest is creepy, but not all of it involves photographing your prostitute aunt having sex with her johns.

For two novels in a row, PD has featured an incestuous relationship, and what is that about, please?

After Venetia defends Garry successfully, he seduces Venetia's daughter. Venetia obviously flies off the handle, since she suspects that he was guilty, but mostly because she dislikes how it will affect and reflect upon her. In addition to being sort of a terrible mother, Venetia is extremely ambitious and makes enemies of many of her co-workers in her quest to become Head of Pawlet Court. She is also having an affair with a married politician, because obviously.

The feminist that lives in my left ear was sort of unhappy to see a powerful woman in such an unpleasant light, but maybe wielding the kind of power Venetia does requires one to be…ungracious…at times, precisely because one is a woman. Aside from that, I really enjoyed this. It was so, so creepy in its depiction of Garry Ashe, who, if not a sociopath, was definitely deeply disturbed. Also, there's a nice bit of substance under all the plottyness: the novel is very much concerned with the limitations of the justice system in actually administering justice. Defense attorneys, especially, have a strange role to play: their asessment of their clients' guilt has almost nothing to do with the job they must do. Theoretically, they bear no responsibility for the future behavior of the people they get off, and yet, in practice, it's often difficult not to assign them some blame, especially when, like Venetia, they view the law as an intellectual exercise and not as the expression of our deep-seated need for justice. The practice of the law is so cerebral, but to seek justice is so instinctual–a matter at least as much of the heart as the head.

As with all of James's mysteries, the plot is intricate. The solution to the murders (there is a second one half-way through), in keeping with the theme, illustrates the difference between knowing something and being able to prove it. For example, I could still be in my pajamas in the afternoon, but can you prove it? No you cannot. 

This NYTimes review of the book is delightful.


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